Perhaps the most scandalous practice in the history of religion has been the selling of indulgences. How did a practice perceived as selling salvation itself not only become tolerated, but popular? In order to understand this, it is important to discuss what an indulgence really is.

Is it really a ticket of heaven or a “get out of Hell free” card? Is it simply glorified almsgiving?

In order to answer these questions, it is important to discuss the antecedents to indulgences and how the practice subsequently developed. As history will show, what began as a local bishop merely “indulging” the request of virtuous Christians vouching for people they actually knew after centuries altered into a practice of the Pope, in exchange for compensation of some sort, applying an arbitrary amount of merits from deceased saints to the living for the sake of their salvation.

Part 1: Almsgiving as an “Offering” in Place of Temple Sacrifices

In order to understand what later became indulgences, it is necessary to understand what role money was thought to have in salvation. The Christian religion has always taught that giving alms, donations to the needy, was, in some sense, salvific for the giver. This doctrine arose centuries before Christianity when after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews were forced to ask themselves in the absence of the sacrificial system how their community could atone for its sins. The Book of Tobit, a Jewish document from this period, poses almsgiving as a substitute:

So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness. Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High. (Tob 4:9-11)


For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life. (Tob 12:9)

Jesus of Sirach, a later Jewish teacher, reiterated this idea: “[O]ne who gives alms sacrifices a thank offering” (Sir 35:4) and “As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin.” (Sir 3:30)

This “offering” to God, as discussed beforehand, was propitiatory so in that it “atones for sins” and “delivers [one] from death.” Jesus Christ, though less explicitly, appears to endorse this idea:

Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness. Foolish ones! Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But rather give alms of such things as you have; then indeed all things are clean to you. But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (Luke 11:39-42)

The fact that these alms were of a financial nature, it made sense that Jewish writers subtly posed the giving of alms as some sort of soteriological (that is, pertaining to salvation) transaction. Jesus of Sirach taught: “Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster.” (Sir 29:12) This concurs with the earlier teaching of Tobit: “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to givealms than to lay up gold.” (12:8)

The preceding transactional language was invoked by Jesus Christ Himself when He taught on almsgiving:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matt 6:19-20; cf Didache 4:7-11)

The teaching on almsgiving Christ gives is that though there is a sense that almsgiving is transactional, it is not strictly so. Rather, almsgiving is a manifestation of true love for God and repentance. The reason the giving of alms benefits the giver is not due to the act itself putting God strictly in man’s debt. Rather, it is spiritually purifying for man. This is, theoretically, worth more than the money itself. This is why Christ taught, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

Part 2: The Intercessory Role of Almsgiving in the Earliest Christian Sources

In addition to the notion that almsgiving is both self-purifying and benefits those who are physically provided for, it was believed that alms can, somehow, spiritually benefit a third party.

Some Scriptures and early Jewish documents taught that praying for the salvation of the dead could bring about some benefit. (Bar 3:4-5, 2 Macc 12:39-45, 2 Tim 1:16-18) The rationale behind it perhaps was that of the earliest Jewish-Christians, Saint James: “The prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16)

The practice of giving alms for the dead’s sake in the early church is not explicitly found in the earliest written sources, those written specifically by the founders of Christianity—the Apostles. Today these sources are called the New Testament. However, there is some evidence from their writings that the Apostles understood the principle that applied to prayer, that it is a means of God bestowing grace upon others, and extended this logic to alms. Almsgiving may have been viewed as a sort of physical extension to prayer. (cf James 2:14-17)

One indication of this is the story of Cornelius, “a centurion…who gave alms generously to the people and prayed to God always.” (Acts 10:1-2) God’s mercy was given to himself and his household as a result. According to the story, “an angel of God” told Cornelius: “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God.” (Acts 10:4; cf 10:31)

Additionally, alms were understood to attract the prayerful intercessions of those who received them. For example, when a centurion asked Jesus to heal his sick servant, he did this by sending “elders of the Jews to Him” who:

[B]egged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.” (Luke 7:2-5)

Just as former centurion’s alms were received as prayers to the benefit of his and his household’s salvation, the alms of the latter centurion were efficacious on behalf of a third party, a servant, through the intercessions of those who received the alms. Hence, alms both act as an accessory to prayer and a means of attracting the prayers of others for whomever the almsgiver desires.

Part 3: Almsgiving’s Treatment in the Early Church: The Case Study of Augustine

Showing continuity with the teachings of post-first temple Judaism and those of Christ and the Apostles, the early Christians largely reiterated the same view of almsgiving. While it would be superfluous to exhaustively list all the church’s early writers on the topic of almsgiving, it is worth noting the teachings of Saint Augustine on the matter as he is both explicit and emphatic.

In exegeting Christ’s teaching on the topic, he takes a rather broad view of almsgiving that likewise mitigates it being applied in a strictly financial sense. Rather, he views almsgiving as a self-purification:

For almsgiving is a work of mercy…But the Pharisees, while they gave as alms the tithe of all their fruits, even the most insignificant, passed over judgment and the love of God, and so did not commence their almsgiving at home, and extend their pity to themselves in the first instance. And it is in reference to this order of love that it is said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When, then, our Lord had rebuked them because they made themselves clean on the outside, but within were full of ravening and wickedness, He advised them, in the exercise of that charity which each man owes to himself in the first instance, to make clean the inward parts. (Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapter 76)

Additionally, Augustine took it for granted that everyone believed that alms were efficacious for the salvation of third parties—even if they were deceased!

Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead are benefited by the piety of their living friends, who offer the sacrifice [Eucharist] of the Mediator, or give alms in the church on their behalf. But these services are of advantage only to those who during their lives have earned such merit, that services of this kind can help them. (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapter 110)

The preceding shows that the early Church had connected the pre-Christian practice of praying for the salvation of the dead, with the Apostolic idea that alms like prayers can intercede for third parties. Augustine did not fail to give a rationale for how the preceding works:

It is not to every one that these services are profitable. And why are they not profitable to all, except because of the different kinds of lives that men lead in the body? When, then, sacrifices either of the altar or of alms are offered on behalf of all the baptized dead, they are thank-offerings for the very good, [cf Sir 35:4] they are propitiatory offerings for the not very bad, and in the case of the very bad, even though they do not assist the dead, they are a species of consolation to the living. And where they are profitable, their benefit consists either in obtaining a full remission of sins, or at least in making the condemnation more tolerable. (Chapter 110)

In short, both the “sacrifice” of the Eucharist (which Orthodox and Catholic Christians still believe is a mystical participation in the crucifixion itself) and almsgiving are always beneficial when done on behalf of someone else. How beneficial depends upon the third party being interceded for. If the person is “very good,” the alms act as a “thank-offering.” Augustine infers this is merely commemoratory and not propitiatory—a memorial as opposed to atoning for the individual in some way. For the “not very bad” they help obtain “a full remission of sins,” which means, an eventual end of purifying suffering in the afterlife.

The context behind the belief in purification after death was that those who did not live holy lives or attained to some faithful feat like martyrdom, would suffer the penalty for their sins they did not repent of in the afterlife and in time would attain to heaven before the second coming of Christ. This early church belief (which is not the topic of this treatment) is in some respects different than the medieval Catholic doctrine of purgatory, but it is in many ways analogous.

Back to Augustine, almsgiving on behalf of “the very bad” would simply make their punishment “more tolerable,” but not ever bring it to an end. Augustine criticizes those “Catholics” who believe that unrepentant Christians who have lived “in the grossest sin…shall be saved by fire; that is, that although they shall suffer a punishment by fire, lasting for a time proportionate to the magnitude of their crimes and misdeeds, they shall not be punished with everlasting fire.” (Ibid., Chapter 67). From the preceding, one can see that the main factor determining one’s afterlife is always the individual’s faithfulness—never the intercession of others. The intercessions of others simply act as a helpful nudge—never the determining factor.

Additionally, almsgiving is not an “insurance policy” against future sins, but rather in of itself an act of repentance from present sin:

We must beware, however, lest any one should suppose that gross sins, such as are committed by those who shall not inherit the kingdom of God, may be daily perpetrated, and daily atoned for by almsgiving. The life must be changed for the better; and almsgiving must be used to propitiate God for past sins, not to purchase impunity for the commission of such sins in the future. (Ibid., Chapter 70)

The giving of alms was not understood as something magical that forgave sins in of itself. Rather, it was a purifying act for an individual and, in some respects, something that implored God to show grace to another individual. However, this grace only nudges an individual positively to a degree. The determining factor for the individual’s salvation was their own faith and righteousness.

Part 4: The Efficacy of Good Works and the Eucharist on Behalf of Others

As mentioned by Augustine beforehand, not only were alms assumed to be beneficial for third parties, so was the sacrifice of the Eucharist. While any explicit warrant for this doctrine is not found in the Scriptures, the practice of commemorating even deceased people for the good of their salvation during the liturgy’s Eucharistic sacrifice has its first documentation at the turn of the third century. Tertullian mentions the practice:

the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike. As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours. (De Corona, Chapter 3; cf On Monogamy, Chapter 10)

Cyprian, in the mid third century, makes it clear these sacrifices are officiated at the altar and takes for granted that bishops and priests have always taken part in these:

The bishops our predecessors…decided that no brother departing should name a cleric for executor or guardian; and if any one should do this, no offering should be made for him, nor any sacrifice be celebrated for his repose. For he does not deserve to be named at the altar of God in the prayer of the priests, who has wished to call away the priests and ministers from the altar. (Epistle 65, Paragraph 2)

Likewise similar to alms, good works were also seen as a viable means of imploring God on their behalf. For example, Ambrose understood the training up of child to be a sort of meritorious work before God:

You have heard, O parents, in what virtues and pursuits you ought to train your daughters, that you may possess those by whose merits your faults may be redeemed. The virgin is an offering for her mother, by whose daily sacrifice the divine power is appeased. A virgin is the inseparable pledge of her parents, who neither troubles them for a dowry, nor forsakes them, nor injures them in word or deed. (Ambrose, On Virginity, Book 1, Paragraph 32)

It would be too narrow of a reading to understand Ambrose as asserting that merely making one’s son a monk or nun in effect transfers “merits” from the ascetic to the parent. Rather, what is being extolled here is good, Godly parenting. Similar to Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to the Temple (1 Sam 1:24-28 MT) and the Apostle James’ admonishment that helping someone repent “cover[s] a multiltide of sins” (James 5:20), the correct upbringing of one’s children so that they do God’s will, in effect, is a good work of the parents’ specifically worthy of God’s recompense. (cf 2 Cor 5:10) There is also the obvious benefit of the children, brought up right, interceding for their parents in prayer.

One may now perceive the fine line between having merit before God for doing something good and enjoying the benefits bestowed by the prayers of fellow Christians, and that of vicarious merit where the good work of performing a liturgy or asceticizing can be transferred, like an asset, to someone else. The former is organic inasmuch as Christians, out of sincere love, want to help one another. The latter is the result of systematizing the generosity of Christians for one another with the addition that Clergy assume the responsibility of transferring the “merits” from one to another as if they were a commodity. It is this doctrinal development in which the medieval system of indulgences arose from.

Not surprisingly, “indulgences” before the late middle-ages were very different. In order to understand how these indulgences worked, it is necessary to review how the early church understood “penance”—a visible act of repentance required after committing a grievous sin.

Part 5: Penance in the Early Church

In the early church, communing the eucharist was understood as necessary for the individual’s salvation. This was in obedience to Christ’s admonishment: “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54) Yet, only those who were held in communion by the early church were to be given the eucharist, as it was believed since the time of the Apostles that it would not benefit those who were “unworthy:”

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord…For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Cor 11:27, 29)

Worthiness in the early church was understood to mean not being guilty of what was considered a heinous sin. Those who at some point committed such a sin could not simply say they were sorry. Rather, they were expected to prove that they were repentant through a public confession of guilt, known as exomologesis, and a visible penance—usually some obvious posture and location one would assume during worship so fellow-worshippers would be aware that this person was not presently in communion. An example of this is recorded in The Acts of the Apostles where Ephesians repenting of sorcery are described as follows:

[F]ear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. (Acts 17:17-19; cf 1 John 1:9; James 5:15-16; Didache Chapter 4, 14; Ignatius, Philadelphians, Chapter 3; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 13, Paragraph 5)

Following the preceding model*, through public confessing and repenting, the penitent, or repentant person, would be protected from the Eucharist and the sacrament’s integrity would be upheld. This practice was not solely communal as it was overseen by the priest or bishop presiding over the church. Confession was directed to this individual. (Cyprian, On the Lapsed, Paragraph 28) According to Saint Hippolytus, in an early collection of what appears to be authentic apostolic traditions, he describes Bishops as “in the spirit of high priesthood having the power to forgive sins.” (Apostolic Tradition 3:5)

*The example in Acts is likely of new converts, not Christians specifically undergoing the sacraments of confession and penance for communing the Eucharist. Public confession of practicing Christians is assumed in James 5:15-16. The connection between the two is that it is likely that new Christians were expected to confess in the same manner before baptism and/or receiving the Eucharist.

Though the preceding may sound bizarre, early Christians were far more rigoristic and, at least theoretically, close knit so that those publicly confessing and repenting could benefit from their Christian brothers and sisters’ prayers on their behalf. Ambrose rationalized the practice precisely on these grounds:

For it is needful to separate one who has grievously fallen, lest a little leaven corrupt the whole lump. And the old leaven must be purged out, or the old man in each person; that is, the outward man and his deeds, he who among the people has grown old in sin and hardened in vices…The Apostle then judged that the sinner should then at once be restored to the heavenly sacraments if he himself wished to be cleansed. And well is it said Purge, for he is purged as by certain things done by the whole people, and is washed in the tears of the multitude, and redeemed from sin by the weeping of the multitude, and is purged in the inner man. For Christ granted to His Church that one should be redeemed by means of all, as she herself was found worthy of the coming of the Lord Jesus, in order that through One all might be redeemed. (On Repentance, Book I, Paragraphs 79-80; cf Tertullian, On Repentance, Chapter 10)

In some respect, the restoration of, or “absolution” given to, a repentant individual was a communal process, fitting for a “nation of priests.” (Ex 19:6, cf Is 61:6, 1 Pet 2:5, Rev 1:6) The changes in confession and penance from being public to being mostly private are also not the subject of this treatment.

Nonetheless, the perceived seriousness of sin led to debates between rigorists and those who were more moderate over whether or not to receive certain repentant people back into communion. The seriousness of one’s sin was always the determining factor. These varying degrees of rigor and leniency are reflected in the era’s canons, those being ecclesiastical laws that governed the church since at least the third century.

For example, a soldier who sheds no blood may not have a penance, but if he does there was a minimal penance of three years in which the soldier could not commune. (Saint Basil, Letter 188:13) However, other authorities recommended that commanders and those shedding blood would be excommunicated for life. (Saint Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 16:9-11, “Hippolytus’” Canon 14) Additionally, the rigorists would impose a lifetime excommunication upon the divorced. (Council of Elvira, Canon 8) More lenient authorities imposed a penance as light as three years if the divorce occurred due to adultery. (The Excerptions of Egbert, Archbishop of York, #122, Council of Verberie, Canon 11; see Ubi Petrus’ Divorce and Remarriage)

Due to there being diversity on the question of rigor, the question arose over how to address those who apostatized during a persecution and afterward “repented,” wishing to return to the church’s communion. While some may think there is nothing worse than apostasy, at the time it was understood that apostasy took several forms: from offering actual sacrifice to a pagan idol, to venerating an image of the Emperor by offering incense, to buying fake libelli, or certificates, attesting to doing the former. (Cyprian, On the Lapsed, Paragraph 27)

All of these were serious sins and due to the “penitential disciplines” (the aforementioned practice of forbidding communion) being so strict, some authorities forbade the lapsed from re-entering communion all together (Synod of Elvira, Canons 1-2; cf Heb 6:4-6) unless they “refrained from sacrifices.” (Ibid., Canon 4; cf Canon 3) In that event, an approximately 10-year penance was imposed. (Ibid., Canon 46) Other authorities were apparently more lenient. The First Council of Nicea prescribed only three years penance for catechumens. (Canon 14) The Council of Ancyra prescribed two to seven years excommunication depending upon the apostates’ temperament, even if they took part in multiple pagan sacrifices. (Canons 4-8) Amazingly, persecutors who repented were given “only” ten years penance. (Ibid., Canon 9)

As the canons of the Council of Ancyra show, apostates historically were allowed to have their penances mitigated against if they showed exceptional sincerity or contrition in their repentance or struggle during their persecution. The idea was that the intent, or lack thereof, behind a sin was important in determining how much of the “medicine” of penance to prescribe. The second canon of the council states, “If any of the bishops shall observe in them distress of mind and meek humiliation, it shall be lawful to the bishops to grant more indulgence.”

Part 6: “Certificates” of “Indulgence” in the Early Church

How would Bishops know the intent of repentant apostates in order to “grant more indulgence” without video of what they did under persecution? People of authority would vouch for the repentant individual. The logic is simple: if someone is known as a confessor for the faith because he suffered persecution without apostatizing, if he vouched on behalf of someone who did apostatize, he would have not done so without good reason. This confessor’s authority was cemented if he was subsequently martyred.

The repentant apostate could not simply claim a confessor vouched for him—this confessor had to submit his recommendation in writing. These “letters of recommendation” to bishops on behalf of the apostates would theoretically sway the bishop to grant “indulgence” to the penitent. This, in effect, was history’s first “indulgence.”

Cyprian explained the practice as follows:

If any who had received a certificate from the martyrs [i.e. martyred clergy] were departing from this life, having made confession, and received the imposition of hands on them for repentance, they should be remitted to the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs. (Epistle 14:3)

This, of course, could be easily abused. The authority of the martyr can be questionable. So, Cyprian exacted scrutiny upon these “certificates” and their recipients:

[E]ven although they might have received certificates from the martyrs, I ordered altogether [the apostate’s restoration to communion] to be put off, and to be reserved till I should be present, that so, when the Lord has given to us peace, and several bishops shall have begun to assemble into one place, we may be able to arrange and reform everything. (Ibid.)

Apparently, confessors vouching for repentant apostates was so common, the Council of Arles even had a canon regulating how bishops should let other bishops know that an apostate was re-admitted to communion:

Concerning those who carry letters from the confessors, be it resolved that, when they have handed over those letters, they receive other letters of reference. (Canon 10)

Just like the judgement of “martyrs” could be questionable in Cyprian’s eyes, so too can the judgement of other bishops in their acceptance of the said “letters.” Bishops were so plentiful in the early Church that not only every city, but nearly every town had its own bishop. Some of these bishops, known then as chor or “country” bishops, were functionally little different than priests as they did not perform ordinations for clergy. (Council of Antioch, Canon 10; cf Council of Ancyra, Canon 13) The eighth canon of the Council of Nicea literally treated the office as a honorific, presuming that a city with both a bishop and chorbishop really had only one bishop. To this day, Arab Christians call their parish priests by the name of chorbishop.

Just as people go church-shopping today finding the pastor they like, penitents were no different and some found a local “bishop” somewhere willing to give blanket “letters of reference” without even naming who they were absolving of guilt! That way, they can claim to be included as one of the persons vouched for to be received back in communion. Cyprian makes reference to this:

I hear that certificates [i.e. “letters of reference”] are so given to some as that it is said, “Let such a one be received to communion along with his friends,” which was never in any case done by the martyrs [in one of their letters] so that a vague and blind petition should by and by heap reproach upon usAnd for this reason I beg you that you will designate by name in the certificate those whom you yourselves see, whom you have known, whose penitence you see to be very near to full satisfaction, and so direct to us letters in conformity with faith and discipline. (Epistle 10:4)

As one can see, the orthodox view Cyprian was espousing necessitates that the “word” of both the confessors and bishops was not decisive in determining whether the apostate was to be received in communion. Apparently, some of the bishops who opposed Cyprian took issue with this and argued that what they say should go because the “merits of martyrs and works of the righteous”* were efficacious on the apostates’ behalf, thereby mitigating against the need to scrutinize the worthiness of their blanket “letters of reference.” (The Lapsed, Paragraph 17)

*Contrarily, Cyprian argues that these works are efficacious on “the day of judgement” specifically for those martyrs. It is possible this faintly echoes the role the saints have in judging the world. (cf 1 Cor 6:3)

This, coincidentally, anticipated the later Roman Catholic theology behind indulgences. Cyprian responded to it as follows:

The Lord alone can have mercy. He alone can bestow pardon for sins which have been committed against Himself, who bare our sins, who sorrowed for us, whom God delivered up for our sins. Man cannot be greater than God, nor can a servant remit or forego by his indulgence what has been committed by a greater crime against the Lord, lest to the person lapsed this be moreover added to his sin…But if any one, by an overhurried haste, rashly thinks that he can give remission of sins to all, or dares to rescind the Lord’s precepts, not only does it in no respect advantage the lapsed, but it does them harm. (The Lapsed, Paragraph 17, 18)

In response to those quoting Rev 6:10 (“How long, O Lord, holy and true, do You not judge and avenge our blood upon those who dwell on the earth?”) as proof that blanket “certificates” from these confessors, now martyrs, should be honored on the basis the Scriptures show that martyrs have their requests heard by God, Cyprian cautions that their letters are only efficacious if what they ask for is reasonable:

And does any one think that, in opposition to the Judge, a man can become of avail for the general remission and pardon of sins, or that he can shield others before he himself is vindicated? The martyrs order something to be done; but only if this thing be just and lawfulThe martyrs order something to be done; but if what they order be not written in the law of the Lord, we must first know that they have obtained what they ask from God, and then do what they command. (Ibid., Paragraph 18)

The implication is that even martyrs should not get everything they ask for, despite their own worthiness. They cannot compel God to forgive anyone or to look less lightly upon a crime such as apostasy.

The aforementioned indulgences were not a third century innovation. Indulgence theology can be dated to at least the second century, as Tertullian takes for granted that indulgences are so common that they are regularly abused. He accused those who wrote the letters vouching for repentant “adulterers” and “fornicators” of “acting on a preconceived arrangement” with authorities to wear “soft” bonds so that they can masquerade as confessors. (On Modesty, Chapter 22) Interestingly enough, he found the preceding to logically necessitate that the confessors would intercede for “idolater[s] in their repentance,” something which was apparently not done at that time, but would become common by the early fourth century, as the Council of Ancyra shows. Interestingly, he explicitly approved of indulgences in future cases involving apostates as “no one is compelled with his [own] will to apostatize,” but rather “penal inflictions” (i.e. torture) accomplish this end. (Ibid.) Cyprian would later employ the same logic. (Epistle 51, Par 26)

What was the motivation behind some confessors, so sincere in their faith that they were willing to endure persecution and even death, to vouch for people who sometimes “did not deserve it?” Perhaps they were family members or close friends. It is possible the martyr thought, incorrectly, he can, as they say, “take one for the team” and those whom he loved can apostatize with less consequences. Maybe some of these martyrs simply had merciful hearts and did not want others to go through what they were willing to endure.

Nevertheless, what Cyprian specifically expounded became the canonical norm: confessors may provide a letter of recommendation which may give a bishop reason to lighten a penance for someone they actually knew. These letters could not literally apply the merits of these martyrs to the apostates, nor were bishops bound to accept their recommendations, even when approved by other bishops.

Quite simply, indulgences were simply a Bishop lessening a penance for a living person based upon someone else’s recommendation. Nothing more. This makes early Church indulgences very different than medieval indulgences. The canons in regulating the process based upon the intent of individuals and granting discretion to bishops in evaluating this had, in effect, rejected both “blanket” indulgences and the idea that the merits of saints were transferrable through the intervention of clergy. Ironically, these canonically rejected indulgences were the only clear theological antecedents to the medieval Roman Catholic practice.

Part 7: The Differences Between Early Church Practice and Later Roman Catholic “Indulgences”

As of yet, the modern Roman Catholic definition for “indulgence” has not been given. This was done to avoid conflating Roman Catholic indulgences with their canonical antecedents. So, what exactly is an “indulgence” today? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God’s justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive.

In Roman Catholic theology indulgences exist in two classes:

The most important distinction, however, is that between plenary indulgences and partial. By a plenary indulgence is meant the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is required in Purgatory. A partial indulgence commutes only a certain portion of the penalty; and this portion is determined in accordance with the penitential discipline of the early Church. (Ibid.)

These indulgences work due to God’s and “the communion of the saints’” good works and prayers that make up “the Church’s treasury.” (CCC 1476; cf 1477) The Roman Catholic “Church…by virtue of the power of binding and loosing…opens the treasury of merits of Christ and the saints to obtain…remission of the temporal punishments due for their [penitent’s] sins.” (CCC 1478) In other words, the Roman Catholic Church can decide literally “how many” or “how few” merits of the saints and God to apply in order to purge the unrepented sins of the “not very good,” to use Augustine’s parlance, that would otherwise require purification (i.e. “temporal punishment” in Roman Catholic parlance) after death. The Roman Catholic Church is under no obligation to provide a plenary, or full, indulgence. Furthermore, the Roman church can demand a hefty price or work for an indulgence—or the opposite. It is a matter of their discretion.

For example, a plenary indulgence for oneself or a dead relative used to require a lot of money or arduous military service in a Crusade. Yet in 2015, it was given to all Roman Catholics in good standing who simply walked through a church door, had “the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin” (i.e. good intent), confessed and communed, and prayed on behalf of the Pope “an Our Father and a Hail Mary.” This indulgence was repeatable for a single living person or dead person “once a day” between December 8th, 2015 to November 20th, 2016. (Source)

In other words, at one time a single indulgence would require a fortune to acquire. Years later, about 330 indulgences were given to each individual practically for free.

Upon reflection, Roman Catholic indulgences and canonical early church practices have several obvious discontinuities and one specific continuity. In review:

Early Church PracticesRoman Catholic Indulgences
1. Almsgiving/good works/prayers/Eucharist help both the giver and the “not very bad” after death, the latter being able to attain to a “full remission of sins” sooner
2. Alms/prayers/works/Eucharist are performed by both laity and clergy
3. The degree alms/prayers/works/Eucharist help is mysterious
4. “Certificates” from confessors and receiving clergy vouched for a living individual to sway a bishop to lessen or remove a penance
5. The degree certificates help is up to the discretion of the receiving clergyman in accepting their recommendation and determining the petitioner’s intent
6. Blanket “letters of reference” condemned
1. Help both the giver and the “not very bad” in Purgatory after death, both being able to attain to either a partial or full remission of “temporal punishment”
2. Performed only by bishops with Pope’s permission through “the exercise of the keys” (i.e. Pope’s sole discretion)
3. The degree they help is either partial or plenary (i.e. complete) solely at the discretion of the bishop/Pope
4. Granted by bishops/Pope, not acting as letters of recommendation, but rather enacting a transfer of merits from the Church’s treasury
5. Solely at the discretion of the bishop/Pope without regard whether the saints would vouch for the individual and simply assumes good intent from the recipient
6. Saints’ approval is assumed
The differences between early church practices and the later Roman Catholic system of indulgences.

Roman Catholic authorities are aware of how different medieval indulgences were. John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic cardinal canonized due to his theory of “doctrinal development,” asserts that the indulgences that exist today, initially, did not exist. He admits:

Indulgences in works or in periods of penance, had a different meaning, according to [historical] circumstances. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Chapter 8.2.11, p. 379; cf Ibid., Chapter 2.3.2, p. 94)

How this development occurred, he conjectures, was due to decreasing rigor in the Church over time:

Faith, whether in Purgatory or in Indulgences, was not so necessary in the Primitive Church as now. For then love so burned, that every one was ready to meet death for Christ. Crimes were rare, and such as occurred were avenged by the great severity of the Canons. (Ibid., Chapter 9.4.3, p. 390)

The preceding has been acknowledged by the national episcopal conferences, who gave reports on the doctrine of indulgences at the Council of Vatican II. Melkite patriarch Maximos IV Saigh was the first bishop to give his report. Father John O’Malley explains that:

After asserting that there was no continuity between the practice of the early church and the medieval doctrine and practice of indulgences, he [Maximos IV] went on to say: “The theological arguments that try to justify the late introduction of indulgences into the West constitute, in our opinion, a collection of deductions in which every conclusion goes beyond the evidence.” Most of the reports that followed the next day were also negative. (The Complex History of Indulgences, America: The Jesuit Review, March 30, 2009 Issue)

Part 8: The Fall and Rise of Indulgences

After the fourth century, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, there were no longer systematic persecutions of Christians. As a result, there was nary a mention of “certificates” of martyrs or any documents acting as indulgences for centuries. At the same time, the “quality” of Christians decreased. Adhering to the religion was no longer counter-cultural and dangerous as it was in the “Primitive Church,” but mandatory and expected.

This magnified the importance of the perceived efficacy (or usefulness) of good works, prayers, and the Eucharistic sacrifice on behalf of the living and the dead. Without confessors to vouch for the good intent of individuals, performing good works, prayers, and combining both during a pilgrimage were seen as increasingly necessary to demonstrate that intent. In this context “the payment of fixed sums of money depending on the” sin “became fashionable.” (Father Enruci dal Covolo, L’Osservator Romano, p. 9-10; Accessible on “The Historical Origin of Indulgences”) It was the medieval version of “putting your money where your mouth is.” Any of the preceding could be substituted in exchange for time imposed by a canonical penance enforced by a local priest or bishop.

This penitential practice, in effect, would practically be no different than the aforementioned partial indulgence for a living individual. The main difference between the two is that the penance was strictly determined within a local context. The lessening of the penance was determined by local clergy who, plausibly, can view the penance (even from afar if it included a pilgrimage to somewhere else) as evidence of repentant intent.

What became “indulgences” appears to have arisen from clergy outside of the local context who, on their own authority, promised significant reductions in penances for the living and forgiveness for the dead. According to Dr. Robert Shaffern, the leading modern scholar on the origins of indulgences, indulgences began in the 11th century as a reward given by both abbots of monasteries and bishops for undergoing pilgrimages or taking part in good works on behalf of the church, such as financing the construction of churches or even bridges. (“Learned Discussions of Indulgences for the Dead in the Middle Ages” in Church History (1992), p. 367) Those who did these good works were granted “absolutions,” such as those given at the end of a confession by a priest. Due to it being accepted that good works such as alms can help the dead, people sought and received these absolutions from “Popes, Bishops, and Abbots” on even the deceased’s behalf. (Covolo, L’Osservator Romano, p. 9-10; Accessible on “The Historical Origin of Indulgences”)

Why would clergy promise an indulgence in such circumstances? Money. Pilgrimages, bridge construction, and financial contributions were means of revenue for abbots and bishops in “holy places” including Rome, which was perhaps the most important pilgrimage destination in the West. As a result, what began as penance, a means of vindicating a repentant person to a local clergyman, now became an indulgence, where a moral debt could be satisfied by a third party in exchange for compensation. Their popularity grew as the authority of the local priest or bishop could be bypassed, and absolution sought by a clergyman who did not know the individual (and perhaps would not be dissuaded by knowing the penitent better).

Cynical moderns may scoff and wonder why people were “suckered” by such an arrangement. The arrangement did in fact make sense, as good works in an uninteresting locale may seem not to be as meritorious as giving alms and supporting a shrine in Compostela, Spain or some other holy site. This is a common temptation that crosses sectarian lines. Locals in Jerusalem popularly accuse Protestant pilgrims who have the sudden urge to preach on the streets of the city (when they otherwise do not evangelize at all) of having “Jerusalem Syndrome.” People simply feel holier and think they can do holier things on pilgrimage. There may be some truth to this, as a pilgrimage is spiritually nourishing, but it is easy to see how this can then be capitalized.

Contemporaries, of course, did not understand the development of indulgences as having such an origin. However, according to Shaffern, they were otherwise at a loss to explain their existence:

For about one hundred years after the first dispensations of indulgences, no learned persons offered an explanation of their origin or usefulness…Clear disagreements existed in the Latin Christian intellectual tradition over the interpretation of indulgences for the dead. The origins of indulgences for the dead are somewhat mysterious. (Ibid., p. 368)

One can infer with certainty that Rome had granted some sort of absolutions in the mold of indulgences, likely to pilgrims, at the turn of the 11th century. Partly in response to these, the Council of Selingstad in 1022 was convened in the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Henry II, a canonized saint in Roman Catholicism. Its 18th canon prohibited the faithful from receiving absolution from the Pope which would reverse local penances. Henry II, notorious for church reforms whose purpose was to consolidate their control under the purview of his empire, would have had every reason to resist the outflow of pilgrims (and their money) to Rome. It appears that such policies were tolerated, at minimal, by the Papacy at that time as they relied upon the Holy Roman Empire for military protection.

However, with the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire’s position in Italy thanks to Norman conquests, Rome reversed course on the aforementioned reforms. Scholars believe that what began as a questionable local practice to drum up support for monasteries and bridge constructions in places of pilgrimage hit “the world stage” after Popes promised “remission of punishment” for crusading—the first such indulgence granted in 1063 by Pope Alexander II for fighting the Moors. (Covolo, L’Osservator Romano, p. 9-10; Accessible on “The Historical Origin of Indulgences”) Decades later, the Council of Clermont in 1095 organized Western Europe’s Catholics to fight in the Levant, promising:

Whoever, out of pure devotion and not for the purpose of gaining honor or money, shall go to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God, let that journey be counted in lieu of all penance. (Council of Clermont, Canon 2)

In 1187, Pope Gregory VIII introduced “something new in that the complete (plenary) indulgence could also be gained by those…who contributed to the expense of a crusade.” (Covolo, L’Osservator Romano, p. 9-10; Accessible on “The Historical Origin of Indulgences”; emphasis added)

In an unprecedented fashion, Popes over the course of approximately 125 years had assumed authority over the local practice of penances. By being simply obedient to the canon, one received an “indulgence” that overrode whatever penance a local clergyman imposed. While this indulgence was explicitly on behalf of the living, due to Christians already accepting the notion that sacraments, good works, and prayers are efficacious for dead people’s salvation, it was not a stretch that an indulgence can be granted which can accomplish the same end.

According to Shaffern, “a 1095 document” details how “two brothers [who] assumed the cross [i.e. Crusade] for the sake of their own souls and the souls of their dead parents.” (Shaffern, p. 369) This was not merely evidence of pious confusion amongst some crusaders. As related by Albert the Great in the thirteenth century:

The church preaches the crusade, and she proclaims crusade to be preached for her own welfare, and the benefit of two or three or ten or how ever many souls among the living as well as the dead, in order to win crusaders. (Ibid.)

Pope Innocent IV wrote at the same time that just as “prayers, the contribution of alms, and fasting may” help the dead, as for indulgences, “we do not deny they are valid for the dead.” (Ibid., p. 375)

Like any business, the market continually consolidated into an oligopoly. What began as an exercise of penance imposed by a local clergyman, once it was allowed to be replaced with indulgences given by abbots and bishops of other localities in order to help finance monasteries and public works, it was only a matter of time this authority was assumed solely by bishops at the Pope’s discretion. This was canonized in the West in the thirteenth century by the Council of Lateran IV, which regulated the practice to the point where the Pope alone was able to offer the best indulgences. This council, while making bishops the sole source of indulgences and cutting abbots out of the picture, also limited the efficacy of all non-Papal indulgences to decreasing penance to one year at most. (Catholic Encyclopedia, “Indulgences”) This has been decreased even further over the years and “[t]hese indulgences are not applicable to the souls departed.” The Pope “alone” was granted the capacity to “grant plenary indulgences” and indulgences for the dead. (Ibid.)

This capacity, ultimately, did not require determining the intent of individuals, as local clergy would have had to do in the past. According to Shaffern:

Dominican theologians…insisted that indulgences’ efficacy [i.e. usefulness] came primarily by the authority of bishops…Thomas Aquinas…stated that only the will of prelates [i.e. bishops] determined the worth of indulgences. (“Learned Discussions,” p. 367, emphasis added)

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that God alone knows whether the person receiving the indulgence is “faithful” and “duly disposed” to actually benefit from the indulgence. (CCC 1471) For this reason, the Roman church does not guarantee by virtue of giving an indulgence that someone will definitely receive immediate salvation as a result. However, they can still grant the indulgence in exchange for some work or payment, presuming upon the best of intentions of the penitent. This makes sense especially for the dead, who no one living can scrutinize. While the dead who died with good intent, or “general contrition,” would be in purgatory, said intent cannot be known for sure. The dead individual could have “perfect contrition” and be in heaven, or insufficient contrition and be in Hell. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church can demand payment or service for an indulgence without guaranteeing an actual service would be rendered.

The preceding of course caused controversy, but not necessarily due to religious idealism. Fiscally speaking, indulgences led to local clergy losing their “customers.” Why give alms or help build a bridge locally and decrease one’s own penance marginally, where one can help fund a crusade and receive a plenary indulgence? While theological disputes did occur, the factions unsurprisingly fell along ecclesiastical lines. According to Shaffern:

Papal allies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries accepted indulgences for the dead because they extended the jurisdiction of the church, and more importantly, of him who reigned over the church. Opponents of indulgences for the dead generally belonged to an ecclesiastical faction often at odds with the papacy. (Ibid., p. 381)

The Pope obviously had an incentive to corner the market for the most sought-after indulgences and those who as a result lost countless alms, let alone an element of spiritual control over their own parishioners, had much to be disappointed over.


In the final analysis, indulgences are not what they are popularly perceived. They are, in sum, a theological development from the Jewish and early Christian notions that surrounded the spiritual benefit attained by almsgiving for individuals and third parties. Even after almsgiving was understood through the lens of a penitential system, something the early Church had canonically embraced early on, this evolved during the Middle Ages into indulgences.

Indulgences were never quite “tickets to heaven.” This is because they never allegedly helped people who had bad intent.

This begs the question why someone with good intent would have to do anything beyond having good, faithful intent in order to go to heaven. The answer to this is determined by one’s own theological convictions. Protestants may say the thief on the cross was saved by nothing other than his faithful intent. Orthodox and Catholics, looking at their own traditions regarding the efficacy of good works, prayers and the eucharistic sacrifice on behalf of the living and dead, affirm that actions beyond intent bestow a spiritual benefit.

While answering the theological question of the efficacy of indulgences is outside the analysis offered here, this much can be said about their origins. Jewish and early Christian tradition affirmed the efficacy of prayers for the living and the dead, and good works such as almsgiving for the living specifically. Without any recorded controversy over the question, Christians accepted the efficacy of the Eucharistic sacrifice and alms on behalf of the dead. This belief lacked any earlier historical precedent in recorded history and so one can only speculate as to whether such practices were innovative, implicit in the New Testament, or unrecorded tradition from Apostolic times as both Orthodox and Catholics claim.

Yet, indulgences themselves represented a wholly new development that occurred approximately eight centuries after their first recorded antecedents. The economic trajectory that indulgences followed is predictable:

Once, the market for alms was largely local as it helped the locals and it was overseen by local clergy. When it became accepted that giving alms and doing good works at a pilgrimage site had more spiritual value, this gave clergy at these sites and the roads to them an oligopoly over these alms specifically. This authority increased when these clergy bypassed pilgrims’ own local clergy and directly assumed the capacity of reducing their “customers’” penances. This practice became known as “indulgences.” Subsequently, the market for these indulgences was increasingly commoditized and consolidated to the point that even these pilgrimage sites, with their local abbots and bishops, lost their hold on the market to the Pope himself.

Instead of almsgiving being a simple act of faith whose exact reward was only known on the day of judgement, money as well as other forms of payment developed into a means of exacting a precise reward as dictated by the indulgence. The indulgence is understood to be efficacious given that all of its contractual obligations, such as correct intent, are met.

Over the centuries, the most severe financial abuses surrounding indulgences have been rescinded. Now, the Roman Catholic Church is more generous, granting indulgences far more easily than in the past. This further development in the practice of indulgences reflects the ever-evolving nature of Roman Catholic doctrine, which to this day, continues to have its effect on history.